A few days ago, my 10-year-old son asked me why I’d scheduled an event on 9/11. “Bad timing!” he said. He knew about the Twin Towers. But he didn’t know about 9/11/73, a date of infamy in Latin America.
9/11/73 was the day General Augusto Pinochet launched a military coup that ousted democratically elected Chilean President Salvador Allende. Allende’s crime was that he’d put too much power in the hands of the people: actually allowing workers to own their labor, nationalizing industries such as copper, which had been taken over by foreign “investors,” and introducing a free milk program for half a million malnourished children. This experiment in democratic socialism was too much for the conservative right. Kissinger shrieked that this was the incubus of Communism – a virus that would spread as far as Europe. And so, with the help of the CIA, Pinochet began his reign of terror.
Let no one be fooled: terror is the right word. The period was a national tragedy. Pinochet’s modus operandi was to have his secret police torture and murder dissidents. Thousands were “disappeared.” A favored technique of the security services was to take Pinochet’s opponents for a helicopter ride and drop them into the Pacific Ocean miles from the shore.
One who survived was the writer Ariel Dorfman. Dorfman was the cultural adviser to President Allende. The night of the coup, he was supposed to be working at the presidential palace, but he’d swapped his shift with a friend. Recognizing he was only alive by chance, he fled Chile, and was to say of Pinochet: “I heard his voice before the coup and didn’t recognize his evil. It haunts me.”
Years later, back in Chile after the safety of exile, Dorfman wrote Death and the Maiden in a three-week blur of creativity. It’s a great play about the meeting of a former victim and her torturer, and was one of dozens of works – plays, screenplays, poetry, novels, essays – designed to excavate the past. He said, “We owed it to ourselves to howl about the truth.”
Dorfman claimed that in all massacres, someone was left alive to tell the story. That “someone” is him. He has worked tirelessly, like Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi before him, to ensure the horrors of tyranny are not forgotten. “I was spared by the coup, and I’ve always felt the gift of life and language is something I have to return.”
In August 2018, Dorfman published an essay in the New York Review of Books about Chile’s Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Museum of Memory and Human Rights) in Santiago. The museum, which opened in 2010, was part of a larger effort to come to terms with Chile’s recent past. This reckoning began in 1991 with the convening of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and continued with other commissions in 2003 and 2011, which interviewed torture victims (close to 40,000 documented cases) and managed to secure reparations.
The museum is the crowning symbol of the process of memorialization. It contains a trove of archival materials that record the Pinochet government’s human rights abuses. Most strikingly, it also contains a wall of 3,197 photos of the murder victims and los desaparecidos. A shrine of candles burns in perpetuity there, to commemorate the lost and to ensure they will never be forgotten.
For his part, the ogre that was Pinochet – a jowly, sleepy-eyed Great Dane in a uniform – was eventually arrested in 1998 in London. He was held for 18 months, but in a final travesty of justice he was declared unfit to stand trial. History will pass its own judgment on him.